Set designers like Derek McLane ’80 are responsible for one of the chief joys of theatergoing: the inevitable surprise we feel when the curtain rises and we are thrust into a previously unimagined world. “A lot of times those first meetings that a director has with the designer are [the] first attempts the director makes to figure out the play, because suddenly the world has to be made physical,” says McLane. “We sit down together and we say, ‘How are we going to tell the story?’”
The first set McLane designed was for a production of Guys and Dolls in the Leverett House dining hall during his sophomore year at Harvard. “By the time we got the actors onstage,” he remembers, “I felt like it was a calling. It was like being in love. I felt, viscerally, that this was something I had to go do.”
After finishing Harvard, McLane earned an M.F.A. in drama at Yale with a concentration in design. Ever since, on stages from Seattle to London to Melbourne, his sets have given plays physical worlds to inhabit. He has won two OBIEs (Off Broadway Theater Awards) for “sustained achievement” and received a 2006 Tony nomination for his design for the revival of the 1950s musical The Pajama Game. McLane has designed The Voysey Inheritance for David Mamet, Macbeth for New York City’s Shakespeare in the Park, and six Stephen Sondheim musicals for the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.
While designing the set for I Am My Own Wife, the 2004 Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Doug Wright, McLane worried that the scenery, as originally written, was too explicitly metaphorical. The main character, a transvestite antiques collector living in Germany during the Cold War, was supposed to perform on a stage strewn with broken furniture. “If I see a play that takes place then and the set is a bunch of destroyed furniture, to me that’s post-Dresden firebombing,” he says. “I thought that design put too much of an interpretation on the play to begin with. In some ways it needs to be more neutral than that, so you can discover and draw your own conclusions.”
But some of the antiques doubled as important plot devices and needed to be onstage. McLane solved that problem by building a set with the necessary props—tables, cabinets, clocks, candelabras, and gramophones—cramming a wall of shelves that stretched outside the proscenium, suggesting that the survival story onstage was both personal and emblematic of postwar Germany as a whole.
Creating a unified pattern or texture out of seemingly mismatched pieces, such as a wall of antiques, has become a theme in McLane’s work. His design for the current Broadway revival of Grease opens with a bank of student lockers in drab greens, grays, yellows, pinks, and blues. A 1950s advertisement for Westinghouse refrigerators, showing dozens of identical units in different colors, inspired the set. “With that kind of celebration of mass production there was also a certain amount of anonymity in the country,” McLane says. “The high-school kids all struggle with anonymity, they all struggle with how do you not just be one of those refrigerators, one of those lockers?”
“When it’s done right,” he concludes, “you can’t tell where the design begins and the direction leaves off, or vice versa. There’s a seamless connection between those things.” During the first number of Grease, when the locker doors burst open to reveal the students behind them, McLane’s set highlights the characters’ internal struggle against anonymity and places it center stage. The set does what he wants all his sets to do: it tells the story.